By Brian Heisler
It's one for the vault. Tom Petty's new Highway Companion is exactly that, a great highway companion. Just like he has done his whole career, Petty put together a collection of short, catchy rock tunes, perfect to cruise to on a summer day or to play on guitar by yourself around a camp fire. The cover art plays with the album title as well, with an astronaut holding the hand of a monkey as the two approach a fictional rocket ready for launch, all of which is set off by the bright blue sky and orange desert sand background, somewhat reminiscent of the surreal cover of the Allman Brothers Band's Eat A Peach. The intriguing art will make for great posters on dorm room walls someday soon. With titles such as "Turn This Car Around," "Big Weekend," "Night Driver," and "This Old Town," from the outside, the album seems like a compilation found at an oasis gas station. It might seem easy to overlook another album this late in the career of a musician whose first record hit store shelves 30 years ago, but give Highway Companion a chance and it just might be the reason to go dig back into that legendary TP collection or perhaps to start a new one.
In his first release since 2002's The Last DJ, Petty plays the role of the heartbreaker, leaving the Heartbreakers band behind and making this his first solo effort since 1994's two-time Grammy-winning Wildflowers. Petty can be heard not only on guitar and vocals, but also drums, harmonica, piano, bass, and keyboards. The first single, "Saving Grace," begins the album and reminds us that Tom Petty can definitely still rock. "Saving Grace" would have been a notable song on any Petty album, not just the latest fad. Song styles resemble the classic Petty genre ranging from the slow, somber solo track "Square One" to the poppy "Jack" to the electric twang of "Turn This Car Around." The first and fifth tracks, "Saving Grace" and "Jack," stick out as the two songs that listeners will remember after their first spin of the album. If nothing else, Highway Companion may be noted in the future for those two tracks. The album slows down a bit in the second half, not quite living up to its more varied beginning. "The Golden Rose" fades out the album much more subtly than it starts, sending the listener off with a loss of innocence in the words, "Yeah it's goodbye golden rose." Even 30 years into it, the great songwriter still seems to be "Damaged By Love," as the ninth track's title claims, resounding throughout much of the album and punched at the very end.
After a tour that bills Trey Anastasio, Pearl Jam, The Allman Brothers, John Mayer, and The Strokes, it's hip to be a Tom Petty fan once again. The tour is a suggestion, but the new album is a reaffirmation that Tom Petty is not just tying the ends of a great career, but in fact continuing to write the legacy. The songwriting and arrangement are great as always, perfectly wide open to the listener. What might be more impressive is the fact that Petty's voice still rings richly and wraps around the music just as it did in 1976. Some artists are great simply because they do not write bad songs, Tom Petty is one of those artists. While some tracks are better than others on Highway Companion, there is no reason to hit the skip button. It's another volume from the Hall-of-Famer that will be played from front to back like one long ballad. So feel free to put Tom Petty back on your list of "must sees" again.
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